From ‘rabbit in the headlights’ to rural campaigner….

Cara Hedges Hempton 3 March 2024 (002)

11th March 2024

Often the first you might know of a proposed planning application is when a leaflet lands with a thud on your doormat.  But if you have concerns, how on earth do you begin to respond?

Here we talk to Cara, who lives in a small village in the north of Oxfordshire.   She tells us of her experience dealing with an unexpected planning application and some of the things she has learnt along the way…

At first, it can all seem like a done deal…  People aren’t apathetic but may feel like there is nothing they can do.

We learnt about the proposed housing development in our village when we got a glossy brochure through the letterbox. It was only for 9 houses, but it was clearly laying the way for a much larger development. Of course the leaflet talked up all the benefits and it gave the impression that lots of thought and money had already gone into the proposals.  It all seemed like a fait accompli, and I felt like a rabbit in the headlights of a bulldozer!

We are a tiny village with almost no community spaces or facilities, so there isn’t much chance to share views.  Also, people live here precisely because they want a quiet life – they don’t want to be making a fuss or stirring up a rabble.   But a chance conversation with some fellow dog walkers made me realise that other people might share my concerns about the development.  They said they felt really depressed about the proposals but didn’t feel they could do anything about it.  

It’s important to gather initial views in as impartial a way as possible. 

I decided to run a short Google survey on our village WhatsApp group, including setting out both the key planning objections and potential benefits as fairly as I could, asking if people were for or against the development and why.  Importantly, I also asked for people’s names and addresses, so later we were able to submit this Residents’ Survey as a formal response to the planning application.

It was like I had opened the floodgates. There was a complete outpouring of concern, with 72 responses (from a village of just 150 houses) in just four days, with every single one opposed to the development. 

The main concerns were the damage to the rural character of the village as the development would be on a prominent site, the impact on wildlife and nature, the access road and proposed pedestrian crossing which would have been on a blind spot on a very busy road, and the overall lack of sustainability of the location.

Get all the help and advice you can, including talking to CPRE!   Make sure you have valid planning objections, based on national and local policies not just emotion.

Setting up a campaign group might be helpful but isn’t essential.

I then had to start to get to grips with the planning system and all the new terminology.   At that point, I didn’t even know who my parish or district councillor was but quickly found out and asked for their help, as well as talking to other organisations such as CPRE Oxfordshire.  I learnt about how we needed to look at both national policy set out in the National Planning Policy Framework and District policies set out in the Local Plan, to make sure all our objections were based on matters of fact and policy, not just emotion.   We didn’t set up a formal campaign group as we didn’t feel people had the capacity for it, but we did have a small What’s App group to share thoughts and info.

Research and evidence-gathering is critical. Focus on key issues, especially those unique to your village – you will know the area better than anyone else.

We read very carefully through all the planning documents and picked out key phrases to help build our case. This proved to be a gold mine of information that we could use to our advantage.  For example, the developers saying ‘there are few protected species in the hedgerows’ made me think ‘that means there are some protected species in the hedgerows’!  I downloaded an App and started doing my own hedgerow surveying and, with help from others, we gathered lots of evidence that the existing biodiversity was much richer than was being stated.

Try to work alongside the Council as much as possible.

My next step was to speak to the District Council and I managed to persuade the Planning Officer to come out to see the site and speak with local people about their concerns.   This really helped us to understand what issues would be taken seriously and where we should focus.   For example, although the village already struggles with water pressure and sewage issues, Thames Water’s position is that it has capacity to support a doubling in size of the village, so this would be a hard issue for us push.

The Appeal process might seem daunting, but part of the Inspector’s job is to make sure your views are heard. 

As the application was only for 9 houses, it didn’t go to Planning Committee and the decision was delegated to the Planning Officer.  We were delighted when he turned it down but that feeling didn’t last long as the developers soon put in an Appeal and so we had to start learning all about that process.   They sought a full Inquiry but the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) decided it should just be a one day Hearing.   It still felt very formal and daunting, but the Inspector was really good at making sure residents’ views were listened to with care.   We worked closely with the Council beforehand to make sure we weren’t duplicating effort but were adding relevant information, particularly on issues that were unique to our specific location such as the impact on the local ecology and road safety. 

Whatever the final outcome, it’s good to understand the benefits of the process, including building links and knowledge within the community.

It was hard work but even if the decision had gone against us, at least I would have felt that I had done all that I could and we have certainly built up the community’s knowledge and resources, so that hopefully we can feed in to helping others. 

However, in the end, our efforts were rewarded and the Appeal was rejected on multiple grounds, including many of the issues that we had raised.  

We are really delighted that, for now at least, our village will keep its rural character and our local wildlife and nature is protected.  

If you find yourself in Cara’s position, please do get in touch with CPRE for help and advice.

Why not join our Green Defenders Network?